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Malawi's Real 'Miracle'

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This is a four-part series about Danielle Nierenberg's visit to the home of Kristof and Stacia Nordin in Lilongwe, Malawi. Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

Part I: Malawi's Real "Miracle"

Stacia and Kristof Nordin have an unusual backyard. Rather than the typical bare dirt patch of land that most Malawians sweep "clean" every day, the Nordins have over 200 varieties of mostly indigenous vegetables growing organically around their house. They came to Malawi in the 1990s as Peace Corps Volunteers, but now call Malawi home. Stacia works for the Malawi Health Ministry, educating both policy-makers and citizens about the importance of indigenous vegetables and permaculture for improving livelihoods and nutrition.

Malawi may be best known for the so-called "Malawi Miracle." Five years ago the government decided to do something controversial--provide fertilizer subsidies to farmers to grow maize. Since then maize production has tripled and Malawi has been touted as an agricultural success story.

But the way they are refining that corn, says Kristof, makes it "kind of like Wonderbread," leaving it with just two or three nutrients. Traditional varieties of corn, however, which aren't usually so highly processed, are more nutritious and don't require as much artificial fertilizer compared to hybrid varieties. According to Kristof, "48 percent of the country is still stunted with the miracle."

Stacia and Kristof use their home as a way to educate their neighbors about both permaculture and indigenous vegetables. Most Malawians think of traditional foods, such as amaranth and African eggplant, as poor people foods grown by "bad" farmers. But these crops may hold the key for solving hunger, malnutrition and poverty in Malawi.

Rather than focusing on just planting maize -- a crop that is not native to Africa -- the Kristofs advise the farmers they work with that there is "no miracle plant, just plant them all." Maize, ironically, is least suited to this region because it's very susceptible to pests and disease. Unfortunately, the "fixation on just one crop," says Kristof, means that traditional varieties of foods are going extinct -- crops that are already adapted to drought and heat, traits that become especially important as agriculture copes with climate change.

And indigenous crops can be an important source of income for farmers. Rather than importing things like amaranth, sorghum, spices, tamarinds and other products from India, South Africa, and other countries, the Nordins are helping farmers find ways to market seeds, as well as value added products, from local resources. These efforts not only provide income and nutrition, but fight the "stigma that anything Malawian isn't good enough," says Kristof. "A lot of solutions," he says, "are literally staring us in the face." And as I walked around seeing -- and tasting -- the various crops at the Nordins' home, it's obvious that maize is not Malawi's only miracle.


Part II: Improving Livelihoods and Nutrition with Permaculture

Check out a video from our visit to Kristof and Stacia Nordin's Permaculture project outside Lilongwe, Malawi:

Part III: Emphasizing Malawi's Indigenous Vegetables as Crops

Check out this video of Kristof Nordin discussing how growing indigenous vegetables benefits farmers in Malawi:

Part IV: Sweeping Change

Travel anywhere in Malawi and you'll see people sweeping -- the sidewalks, the floors of their houses, and the bare dirt outside their homes. And while the sweeping makes everything look tidy, it's also one of the major causes of damage to soils in the country. Because sweeping compacts soils, leaving it without any organic matter, erosion is widespread and the soil has very little nutrients. As a result, crops -- especially corn -- in Malawi rely heavily on the use of artificial fertilizers.

Kristof and Stacia Nordin have been working in Malawi to help educate farmers that "tidy" yards and gardens aren't necessarily better for producing food or the environment. Stacia works for the German-base NGO GTZ, while Kristof runs the farm and is a community facilitator. Their home is used as a demonstration plot for permaculture methods that incorporate composting, water harvesting, intercropping and other methods that help build organic matter in soils, conserve water, and protect agricultural diversity.

"Design," says Kristof, "is key in permaculture," meaning that everything from the garden beds to the edible fish pond to the composting toilet have an important role on their property. And while their neighbors have been skeptical of the Nordins' unswept yard, they're impressed by the quantity -- and diversity -- of food grown by the family. More than 200 indigenous fruits and vegetables are grown on the land, providing a year round supply of food to the Nordins and their neighbors.

In addition, they're training the 26 tenants who rent houses on the property to practice permaculture techniques around their homes and have built an edible playground, where children can play and learn about different indigenous fruits. More importantly, the Nordins are showing that by not sweeping, people can get more out of the land than just maize.

Such practices will become even more important as drought, flooding, other effects of climate change continue to become more evident in Malawi and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

For more about permaculture, check out Chapter 6, "From Agriculture to Permaculture" in State of the World 2010, which was released today.